At a lengthy Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, town administrator Robert Whritenour led a fiscal year 2020 budget workshop, outlining the town’s overall budget while waving warning flags over the annual budget increases for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, which has the town reaching a breaking point.
Whritenour said that while Oak Bluffs is one of the poorest towns on the Island, it funds close to a fourth of the regional high school — $5.3 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
“The expense side of our budget is far more volatile than we can handle. It easily goes up in excess of the revenues we have in each and every year,” Whritenour said.
He added that the town is “scraping by” without a Proposition 2½ override in FY ’20, but there is cause for concern that the town’s regional educational expenses are increasing disproportionate to the overall budget.
A Proposition 2½ override increases property taxes indefinitely, and is usually for an ongoing expense the town needs to fund now and in the future.
The high school’s budget increased by 7.5 percent last year, which forced an override, and is planned to increase by 6.4 percent this year. The increases for the high school’s budget squeeze the town’s overall budget, forcing other departments to make sacrifices and the town to “spend every dime we have,” according to Whritenour. “Folks need to hear, that is unsustainable within the revenues that we have in this town without having a constant override every single year.”
A “breakdown in communication” between the town and the high school hasn’t helped matters either, said Whritenour, and drastic steps may have to be taken. “At some point I think we’re going to be forced to reject the high school budget. Solely on the grounds that the communication piece is broken somewhat. That no way reflects on the quality of the education at the school, but I think some of these pressures, that that regional piece places on a community like Oak Bluffs, I think need to be understood a little bit better at the regional level.”
Some 82 percent of Oak Bluffs’ revenues come from property taxes, which Whritenour said is “unhealthy” for a town of its size. Only 18 percent comes from state aid.
The town also bears the burden of funding the lion’s share of other regional services due to its population. Many services, such as Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the YMCA, and the high school, are located in Oak Bluffs.
“The challenges that we face — and most specifically the pressure that’s been placed by a number of forces, primarily outside of the town — on the town’s property taxes has created a situation that we’re really at a crossroads,” Whritenour said.
While the high school budget and other regional services are cause for concern, the town has improved its budgeting in several areas.
In 2012, the town’s general fund balance weighed in at $115,000. Today it’s at $1.5 million, or 5 percent of the town’s budget. Similarly, the town’s free cash balance is currently at $1.1 million, compared with $600,000 in 2012. The town has also kept most of its budgets and services level to avoid a Proposition 2½ override for a second year in a row, despite the rising costs of the high school.
Oak Bluffs resident Kerry Scott went before selectmen to voice her frustration and concern over the infamous County Road puddle.
The puddle, which forms at the nexus of County Road and Tradewinds Road, is caused by runoff from several surrounding private properties, including from an extensive automotive junkyard.
Scott directed part of her prepared statement toward Whritenour, who she claimed said the puddle’s leeching was “nontoxic.” She then read off a list of contaminants that she assumed get into the puddle, including antifreeze, gasoline, oil, dioxin, cyanogen chloride, and a litany of other chemicals.
Scott asked selectmen what their plan is to address the “toxic” puddle, which she said has damaged fences, plants, and trees in her yard.
Highway superintendent Richard Combra said he and Fire Chief John Rose contacted the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank several weeks ago, asking to drain the puddle on the Tradewinds property due to concerns the puddle would freeze and be unsafe for vehicles. Combra said the Land Bank agreed to a one-time draining. Since then the the town has been draining the puddle on a wooded town parcel north of the intersection.
The town is using two-thirds of its Chapter 90 funds, which are used for road projects, to fix the puddle’s drainage problems.
The project will cost $300,000. The current drainage system in place costs about $2,000.
In other business, selectmen approved the change of longtime restaurant staple Lola’s restaurant reopening as Nomans restaurant.
Doug Abdelnour Jr., who will be manager of Nomans, told selectmen the building would still operate as a restaurant, but will be geared toward a more family-friendly atmosphere. The restaurant will have only one bar, serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and close up around 10 pm. The restaurant will start off as a seasonal establishment.
Selectmen also extended the lease of brothers Dan and Greg Martino, owners of Cottage City Oysters, an oyster farm in Vineyard Sound. The lease extension allows the farm to qualify for several grants and projects with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Martinos will also start to grow scallops and quahogs alongside their oysters and seaweed.
Selectmen voted 4-0 to reappoint selectmen chair Gail Barmakian to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Barmakian abstained.